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For I have given you an example

Posted by on Mar 16, 2011 in discipleship, scripture, service | 8 comments

For I have given you an example

Guy at “The M Blog” wrote a great post called “Acts–description or prescription?” His blog post also started a great discussion in the comments.

As you can tell by the title of his post, Guy and his readers are discussing the question of whether narrative portions of Scripture are only descriptive or if they are both descriptive and prescriptive. The question of normativity (that is, what in Scripture is applicable to the follower of Jesus Christ today, and how is it applicable) is a difficult one. In the comments, you will find people who come down on each side of this debate.

I added my thoughts to the discussion, and I thought would share those thoughts here. Here is my comment on Guy’s post:

This is an important discussion, because you’re asking a question that is typically overlooked.

The answer to what is prescriptive and what is (merely) descriptive is usually answered by a person’s theological tradition or background instead of some hermeneutical or interpretive strategy. Thus, we accept certain things as prescriptive (normative) because we are more reformed, or less reformed, or more baptistic, or less baptistic, or more liturgical or less liturgical.

All of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation) contains a mixture of genres. One of the most difficult genres to interpret is narrative – which we find primarily in the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament (although there are aspects of narrative in the Epistles and Revelation as well).

For me, John 13:1-15 is helpful for understanding how to interpret narrative. I don’t think Jesus’ remarks in John 13:14-15 apply only to foot washing, and I don’t think they apply only to this particular passage.

Are the narrative passages of Scripture prescriptive (normative) for followers of Christ today? It depends on what you mean by prescriptive. Should we do exactly what those early believers (or Jesus) did? Probably not. Should we learn from their example and live accordingly (you could call this by principle, if you choose)? Yes, I think so.

What do you think? Can John 13:1-15, and especially Jesus’ instructions in John 13:14-15 help us understand how we are to interpret narrative passages of Scripture?


8 Comments

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  1. 3-16-2011

    Alan,
    I hold that the underlying principles of all Scripture is both prescriptive and descriptive. I don’t see it as an either/or thing. Also, I think we must do the work contextually also as we seek to apply Scripture to our context today.

  2. 3-16-2011

    It seems that Jesus had a big emphasis on discipleship through shared-life and thus teaching by his own example (his narrative so to speak) so it would make sense that Jesus would want us to follow his example which is set out in the narratives of Scripture.

    A lot of times it seems the example teaches us a bigger lesson about selflessness, love, obedience, or whatever else, so the actions are not necessarily required but the heart of the actions. It seems that Jesus taught stuff along these lines in the sermon on the mount about actions and the heart from which they come from.

    So, the big question for me would be, does Jesus want us to actually wash people’s feet, or to serve people in whatever ways we can?

  3. 3-16-2011

    Alan-

    Your example of Jesus serving the disciples by washing their feet is an excellent example. Culturally we do not typically have servants who remove our house-guests sandals and wash their feet here in America 2011. But Christ’s example and his admonition do as I have done, do this to one another has great application for us as you have mentioned. We are to lovingly and humbly serve one another like our Master has done, we are not to view servants work as beneath us, but rather we are to attain greatness in Christ’s Kingdom by dying to self and serving others.

    ..of course, there are groups of Christians who get together, remove their shoes and wash each other’s feet, I’m sure this is all well and good playing make believe we are in 33-35 AD-no harm done, but is this the same as sacrificially serving others and considering others as better than ourselves? Could you engage in this local assembly ritual and still not humbly serve others as a manner of life?

    I believe the majority of the narratives are descriptive.

    Thank you for this post.

  4. 3-16-2011

    Chris,

    I agree. Perhaps a better question to ask would be this: How is this particular passage (narrative passage, maybe) prescriptive (normative) for us today? What does it mean for us to “learn” from this passage of Scripture? (i.e., 1 Corinthians 10:11) What do you think?

    Dan,

    Exactly. John 13 is certainly a descriptive passage, and according to Jesus (in John 13:14-15), it is also prescriptive. But, what is prescriptive? Specifically washing feet, or humble service? How do we decided which one it is?

    Hutch,

    I witnessed “foot washing” in Ethiopia, but they did not wash feet; they washed hands before meals. Someone would carry a basin, soap, and pitcher of water around to each person so that person could wash his hands before eating. (They eat with their hands – no utensils.) Usually, this is reserved for the children, but occasionally one of the adults would serve instead.

    When you said, “I believe the majority of the narratives are descriptive,” did you mean “only descriptive, but not prescriptive (normative)”?

    -Alan

  5. 3-16-2011

    I will copy/paste my response back to you here as well…

    Your John 13 example is a good one. On the one hand, we can totally dismiss the entire passage as narrative, or we can see in Jesus example that He was clearly setting the standard for those disciples who would be following in his steps.

    One of the issues we run into with trying to make narrative passages the norm, is when we read into the narrative our own cultural biases and customs. One example I encounter frequently is the Acts 2 passage where my fellow brothers state emphatically that it says, “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house clearly shows that the early believers continued to meet in the temple.”

    It is a difficult thing to try and convince people that the Jerusalem temple was something quite different from the temples that are scattered all around our city of Guayaquil. Yet to even raise the question causes people to roll their eyes and point again to the written Word asserting, IT SAYS…they were of ONE MIND, DAY BY DAY, CONTINUALLY IN THE TEMPLE! The houses are where they ate together, but it was the temple where they worshiped and listened to the apostles preaching.

    I guess all of us do a bit of this reading into Scripture according to our biases and upbringing, but it sure complicates things when we are trying to understand what it is our Lord is trying to say!

  6. 3-16-2011

    This conversation, speaking globally not just about the conversation here, is so important but it also makes my eye twitch. It is so easy to dismiss many of the narrative passages (not to mention the passages that are more clearly prescriptive) as merely cultural while not facing up to the reality that perhaps they ARE still normative today. It is very easy to lose the principle while setting aside the practice and some principles are very difficult replicate in a different practice. My instinct is to apply Scripture, whether a passage is generally regarded as descriptive or prescriptive, as literally as possible. That doesn’t mean I am doing so perfectly nor does it mean that my motivations are completely proper in each case but I think we are better off obeying as a sign of our love for Christ than making Scripture justify itself.

  7. 3-16-2011

    Guy,

    Yes, I think that all of us (myself included) read our own desires or preferences into Scripture. How do you think we can reduce this affinity or trend?

    Arthur,

    Sorry about the eye twitch. It is impossible to apply Scripture (as a whole) literally. The big question is, even if everyone agrees that a passage is normative (i.e. prescriptive), then how do we apply it? And, what do we do about those who apply it differently?

    -Alan

  8. 3-18-2011

    Alan,

    A good example for us is headcovering. Not everyone, or even very many, Christians see it as normative. My wife covers but we have no issue being in fellowship with other Christians who do not. That one is pretty easy, at least for us. Some of the other issues get a lot stickier, like women teaching men or baptism.

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